Respond to this Article September 2006

Apps Lit

What the new wave of college-admissions fiction tells us about higher education.

By Rachel Morris

Not long after graduating from Princeton with a literature degree and $81,000 in student loans, Noah, the son of a struggling single mother from rural Virginia, took a job as an SAT tutor on Manhattan's Upper East Side. For $395 an hour, he schooled the children of the improbably rich in techniques guaranteed to lift their standardized test scores by as much as 350 points.

Noah's most difficult charge was Dylan Thayer. Dylan's mother, an immaculately coiffed psychiatrist with a weakness for writing herself Ritalin prescriptions, hoped to boost Dylan's SAT writing score from a disappointing 420 to the 650 required by the lacrosse recruiter at UPenn. Alas, Dylan spent too much time at hip Manhattan clubs and recovering from the ensuing hangovers to concentrate on studying. One week before the test, Dr. Thayer realized that the phalanx of tutors she had procured couldn't compensate for her son's chronic indolence. She handed Noah a check for $80,000 and implored him to sit the test on Dylan's behalf.

Such is the plot of Eliot Schrefer's Glamorous Disasters, a morality tale about the many ways in which money buys access to a good college. It's satirical, but only just. Forty years after Congress passed the Higher Education Act, America's best colleges are hardly the machinery by which a meritocracy functions. They're more like finishing schools for the rich. Pell Grants haven't kept pace with tuition hikes; top schools increasingly bid for star applicants with scholarships based on "merit," not need. At the same time, services offering the wealthy an edge--private SAT tutoring, essay editing, application "packaging"--have graduated into a multimillion-dollar industry. Like Defense Department officials who quit to work for Lockheed Martin, former admissions officers help students craft essays and fortify their resumes with unusual extracurriculars for as much as $30,000. Consequently, wealthier students are displacing both low-income and middle-class students at the most selective colleges--where 74 percent of the students now come from the top socioeconomic quartile.

This situation has evidently horrified the writerly imagination because Schrefer's book is one of four novels published this year about the seamier side of college admissions. In Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs, a romantically frustrated guidance counselor in Westchester County negotiates checkbook-wielding parents and an unscrupulous educational consultant named Curtis Fink. Academy X follows a hapless Manhattan private school instructor ensnared by a wealthy student in a plot to get her into Princeton. But the most infamous example is Kaavya Viswanathan's fable of a Harvard-obsessed overachiever who fabricates the persona of a party girl, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (which in March was discovered to have been substantially plagiarized). It's no surprise that the applications racket--you could call it the college-admissions-consulting complex--has spawned its very own minor fictional genre. It thrives on the status anxieties of well-to-do parents, and so offers plenty of material for those most American of literary themes: aspiration and money.

But although the press materials for Glamorous Disasters promise "echoes" of The Great Gatsby, it's Jane Austen that these writers channel.

Viswanathan claims her as an influence; Jane Austen in Scarsdale is modeled on Persuasion, and the teacher in Academy X imagines his most spoiled student as "my Emma." That makes sense. College is to an American kid what marriage was to an Austen heroine--the gatekeeper to a certain social status and its attendant income.

What's perhaps most disturbing about this crop of admissions lit is that many of the scenarios are plucked from the writers' own experiences. Andrew Trees, the author of Academy X, teaches at Horace Mann, an exclusive New York private school, while Schrefer worked as a private SAT tutor. (None of his clients tried to bribe him to sit the test, but he knew of a teenager who took it for others for $5,000.)

But the most unnerving example of truth trumping fiction is that of Viswanathan, whose parents hired IvyWise, a consulting service, to prep her for her Harvard application. Viswanathan's adviser encouraged her to showcase her writing, which these days means landing a $500,000 book deal with Little, Brown. Viswanathan's editor then enlisted a media firm to help her "conceptualize" the book. In the novel, Opal's mission to reinvent herself backfires when her friends discover her game-plan, but in real life Viswanathan suffered a far more public humiliation when stories detailing numerous instances of plagiarism in Opal Mehta hit The New York Times and the "Today" show. Little, Brown withdrew the book and nixed plans for a second novel.

It's not shocking that Viswanathan's reality collided so spectacularly with her fiction. When parents hire professionals to make their kids "look raw without over-packaging them" (as one consultant put it to the Times), it's difficult to know where the marketing ends and the student begins. Nor, as the books reflect, do colleges discourage these practices. Opal makes it to Harvard despite her deception (Viswanathan is also still there). Academy X's villain fails to scheme her way into Princeton, but she gets her second choice, Wellesley. Admittedly, none of these books is great literature. But they tell some cruel truths about an educational system that, once upon a time, at least aspired to be governed by merit. Just in case we miss the point, in Glamorous Disasters, Dr. Thayer drives it home: "You live in America, Noah. Money is the only proof of merit we have."

Rachel Morris is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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